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One more embrace

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The year was 1998, and the embracing had not yet begun.

How could it? Back then, Jaguars fans didn't know the shy kid with the gold teeth. Maybe they knew him a little, from his days at the University of Florida, but they didn't know him, not like they would.

No, in 1998, Fred Taylor was a rookie in the NFL, and raw only began to define him.

This week, Taylor described himself at the time as "wide-eyed," and said he disliked his first training camp under then-Jaguars Head Coach Tom Coughlin enough he figured he'd probably play two or three years, then head home to Belle Glade, Fla.

Tony Boselli, the Jaguars' left tackle in 1998, recalled Taylor's rookie season this week. Taylor's description of himself? Boselli said it was no exaggeration.

"When he came in as a rookie, he was not confident," Boselli said. "He was a very quiet guy. I remember meeting him the first time; you could tell he was just kind of trying to figure out everything. He had the gold teeth. He was quiet, to himself.

"I would have never imaged the guy who showed up as a rookie who was quiet and not very confident would be one of the leaders of the team."

Times change. People do, too. Fred Taylor darned sure did.

We could talk about many different aspects of Taylor today, the day before he enters the Pride of the Jaguars, becoming the only player other than Boselli to be so honored. We could talk about the moves; the rare combination of speed, size, strength. We could talk about how he was unfairly cast as fragile early in his career, or how because of the team's small-market status he may never be fully appreciated by those outside Jacksonville.

All those things are part of his story.

That's one of the neat things about Taylor, in fact, that there are many parts to this story. His story is far from simple, and though it is a happy one, it is not clean. It's not about a guy who worked hard from Day One to get where he is, in fact. He was gifted, the Jaguars' all-time leading rusher was, so gifted that he ran a 4.29-second 40-yard dash at his Pro Day at the University of Florida in 1998.

A 4.29-second 40-yard dash for a running back of his size is enough, but this past summer, when participating in the Jaguars Caravan Tour, Taylor told me the rest of the story, and that was that he barely trained for that Pro Day. Instead, he left a speed camp after two days because the people running it said it would do him no good, that there was no way for him to get faster. Instead, he spent much of the weeks leading to his Pro Day eating poorly and going to pool parties.

He ran the 4.29 anyway – and when he did, the NFL scouts on the practice field across from Florida Field whistled, oohed and aahed in a way I'd never seen at the various Pro Days I'd covered.

Tom Coughlin was there that day, and a month and a half later, the Jaguars made him the 1998 NFL Draft's No. 9 overall selection, but while that's a neat enough story that's not the best part of the Taylor story.

What's neat, and what just about anyone who knows Taylor can relate to, is when he told that story, he didn't tell it to brag. He wasn't proud of it, and neither was he ashamed. It was his story, unvarnished, and maybe that's the thing most notable about Taylor – his seeming desire to be as truthful as possible in just about every situation.

This is rare in anyone. It is particularly rare in athletes on a public stage.

The neat thing, too, about that Taylor story is that when Taylor was telling it, he was telling it within the context of how he had changed in the 14 years since that Pro Day, and anyone who knows Taylor will tell you that, too.

That kid who partied his way to the Pro Day?

He learned. He grew.

I covered Taylor three years, 1998-2000, and during that time I saw numerous special Taylor moments. The 90-yard touchdown against the Dolphins. The 78-yard pass reception against the Ravens. A record-setting night in Pittsburgh when he was so fast, so much better than everyone else on the field, that it was the only game I've ever seen when tackling angles didn't matter.

He was that good.

There was also the time as a rookie when Taylor ran for three touchdowns against Tampa Bay, the last of which was a cutback run for a 70-yard touchdown to finally win a back-and-forth game against a defense then among the NFL's best.

That's Taylor's favorite NFL memory, and on the field, at least, it's how I choose to remember Taylor. Young. Possessing gifts and ability few have possessed. Using those gifts to have fun and to help define what still remains the most memorable, golden era of Jaguars football.

I spoke to Taylor Friday morning, and as we spoke, his thoughts turned to how quickly time passes. Thirteen seasons, he said, passed in the time it takes to snap your fingers. He was talking on his cell phone as he spoke, still in Belle Glade, packing his family for the trip to Northeast Florida, where later that evening, he would watch his oldest, son, Kevin, play for Belle Glade Glades Day against Yulee High School.

In the blink of an eye. Time passes.

It's like that in life, but it's particularly true in professional sports. But it's fair, too, to say here that few NFL athletes use their time as effectively as Taylor. He not only used it to rush for more yards than all but 15 players in NFL history, he used it to make a remarkable transformation.

The kid who was shy and unconfident in 1998 matured into a player who by the middle of the following decade not only led, but led easily. Talking to Marcedes Lewis and Maurice Jones-Drew this week, that's the Taylor they remember – a player who when they were rookies in 2006 easily commanded a room, and taught them how to be professionals.

He counseled them how to learn from what he had done wrong, and what he had done right. How much did the young kid with the gold teeth change? How much of a leader did he become? Enough that Jones-Drew said this week, "On the field as a player, the player you see today (in Jones-Drew), is mainly because of what Fred did."

We could go on, of course. It would be easy to tell Taylor story after Taylor story. You can't fit every great Taylor story or memory into one column, so we won't try here. Not that the effort wouldn't be enjoyable, because as special as the on-field memories created are – memories that have been recounted on this site and elsewhere this week – even more special is the man who made them.

That man came to be beloved by the fan base, and though it didn't always come easy, that it happened was inevitable and deserved. It was also requited, because as much as the fans came to love Taylor, Taylor came to love Jacksonville, the Jaguars, the fans.

On Sunday, at halftime of the Jaguars-Bengals game, they'll embrace one another one more time.

And this time, the embrace will be forever.

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